Local Government: Seldom Sexy but Always Essential

By   /   August 22, 2016  /   6 Comments

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The importance of local government is usually overlooked, except in complaint. Conservative voters moan they get nothing for their rates. That the council should do more with less, that there’s no accountability, that councils take money for nothing and rates are too high.

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Local government election hoardings are up, complete with pictures of smiling candidates and sometimes obscure one-liners. Right-wing lists of promises are inclined to take the typical rhetoric – to cut rates, council staff numbers, red tape, and to ‘open the books’. Candidates who have never been elected before make promises they may never be able to keep, often without looking at the public details available in the already open books of Council Annual Plans and Reports. Aspiring politicians spend disproportionate amounts to woo voters who are mostly uninspired even to carry out an easy postal vote.

The importance of local government is usually overlooked, except in complaint. Conservative voters moan they get nothing for their rates. That the council should do more with less, that there’s no accountability, that councils take money for nothing and rates are too high.

But local government services impact every element of our daily lives. We can tend to take for granted, the benefits of having our rubbish collected, reticulated water that’s usually safe to drink, sealed roads, great libraries, and civic amenities. We can disagree with how those services are provided, and by whom, and rightfully bemoan inefficiency, unaccountability and waste. But the buses usually run on time, and big budget projects like the city rail link benefit the whole region. Those council employees that people complain about, are people too, usually with a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the public sphere. We all deserve to be safe from dodgy building practices or hazardous activities and if takes ‘red tape’ to do that, then count me in.

Public water contamination incidents show just how dependent we are on reliable civic infrastructure to address public health issues, rather than to cause them. The rules governing discharges to waterways and aquifers are legitimate matters for local/regional government (though pretty hard to change). Whether we should be forced even to connect to any public water supply is another question. Political support for asset sales is as major an issue at local government level as it is at central level, given usually those assets generate enduring incomes that keep rates low. Promises to keep rates below population growth rate mean that levels of service can only decline in the absence of other tools which will all have their cost too. And if higher rates means better services, then I’m prepared to pay.

Traditional local government ‘core business’ focus on roads, rates and rubbish has been in support the interests of capital, allowing the exchange of goods and services in an ‘efficient’, mobile and regulated way, with minimal costs and burdens for ratepayers, (originally with franchise limited only to landowners). Conservative political views limit tolerance for more social or environmental goals. That’s meant it’s not always fair, or equitable, or serves the needs of all.

Given that so many social goods are distributed unjustly, councils can either perpetuate or alleviate environmental injustices. But motorways and power pylons go through poorer communities such as Mangere, Massey and Onehunga. Poorer communities often have poorer transport access, more pollution, lower quality amenity. Civic goods are distributed unevenly. Adverse air quality impacts disproportionately, with particulates polluting lower socio-economic groups in Christchurch. Poor people shiver with inadequate heating while breathing the smoke from wealthier peoples’ fires. NZ studies showed climate change affects coastal dwellers, those over 65 and poorer people more than others. Even participation in decision-making is unevenly distributed, as working class people have less capacity, power, knowledge and other resources with which to defend their environments. And unfortunately they’re less likely to vote.

It’s not easy for the wider public to make an informed choice about candidates even though policy information has improved through time. Word of mouth, networks and incumbency often assist the best guess. Even then, with a First Past the Post electoral system in most of New Zealand, the first choice doesn’t always get the most votes, with often more against than in support. In other instances, the candidates just fail to inspire. Government vetoes of local government aspirations can thwart democracy at community level.

Voters from the left should support greater council intervention and spending, not less, and tools that are equitable, supporting redistributive environmental and social policies. Local government is seldom sexy, but it’s always essential for environmental, safety and community benefits, as much as to balance the economic ones.

Christine Rose is employed as Kauri DieBack Community Co-ordinator by the Auckland Council. She was a local body politician for fifteen years and researched local government politics at the University of Auckland. All opinions expressed herein are Christine’s own. No opinion or views expressed in this blog or any other media, shall be construed as the opinion of the Council or any other organisation.

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  1. CLEANGREEN says:

    Yes Christine Local Councils are our advocates as Central Government do not take any interest in the regions that local Councils control and National have interfered with other local government structural regulations so much in the last eight years that our local Councils cannot function as effectively as they did before, so blame National for all the issues web have today.

    Wasn’t it National that used to complain about Helen Clark running a “Nanny State”???????

    Get out of our region National.

  2. Mike in Auckland says:

    I tell you what, I have over recent years taken a strong interest in what happens in “local government” here in Auckland, I also followed the whole Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan hearings. What I observed has completely disillusioned me about how things are done and run here in Auckland.

    Talk about voting and “democracy”, it is a huge FAT FARCE.

    We have Council Controlled Organisations, which are run like separate units – almost, along business lines. We have strong connections between Council and some sitting on the Council, with significant vested business interests. We have actually business run much of the show behind the scenes.

    Look at what the city has become, it has become a playground for commerce, more commerce and cold, often ugly, large and high-rise concrete and steel buildings.

    Historic buildings have been knocked down all over the show, since I first came here in the 1980s, only the odd facade still stands, having been turned into gateways into cinema and shopping mall complexes, various sterile arcades that resemble nothing they once may have looked like.

    There are many cheap skate buildings, not just the horrible ghetto like apartment blocks around Hobson Street and Upper Queen Street and so.

    They say it is all going to be better in future, denser, more compact, but built by following “good design”. I believe none of it, and I witnessed how developers chatted with Council planning staff and representatives between hearings, also had discrete “discussions” in separate rooms, and no surprise to me, the now decided on Unitary Plan, notified now, is the poor result I feared. It will be a great framework for developers, builders and the business sector, but no-one else. No affordable housing will come out of it, we will be back with some horrible outcomes, and later many will lament again, why the hell did they ever let this happen.

    As for residents, small community group input, nada, nothing much worth mentioning, most gave up half way through, not having financial and other resources to continue with hearings. The business and government agency and developer and business players though had all the time and money, and the expert lawyers and planners be there for them, putting their stamp on ‘the Plan’.

    The lawyers and planners run the show, unison with the professional administrators, CEO down to the lower ranks, the citizen, the public and ratepayers are the idiots the “manage” as they see fit. That is what local body politics has become like, a huge FAT FARCE.

    Whether Goff, Thomas, Crone or what her name is, will be mayor, that will be just one vote in the round, and others will already be the ones that have business and media on their sides.

    My protest vote may this time go to Penny Bright, whether I agree with her or not, I will protest.

    • save nz says:

      +100 Mike in Auckland.

      Auckland council, while “maybe” individually people their are wanting the best for the public, beneath the covers the true SuperCity plan is unfolding with less and less democracy, higher rates and money being siphoned off for businesses and trougher cronies.

      Public transport remains poor and expensive under the unworkable COO’s structure. (Interestingly in London they have abandoned the Private Partnership schemes as being unworkable). Maybe Phil needs to look into this, knowing his love of PPP’s.

      The laughable Sky bridge PPP (still in planning) which will tax the walkers and cyclists over the harbour bridge but have the car users go free is a sign of the hilarious outcomes in our 100% clean green NZ under National and private transport operators in action.

      While Auckland property prices have skyrocketed and therefore massive rates revenue increases, it is hard to see where this money has been spent to benefit the public by Auckland Council. Instead billions of dollars being wasted in unworkable IT for example, Westfield mall developments and private trougher barristers defending poor council decisions.

      Nope I hold no faith in either Phil Goff or Viv whatshername or any of the other mayoral candidates. I might have to join you in voting Penny as a protest vote. I think the Mayoral choices are very limited for change of culture at Auckland council.

      If the current councillors get their way there will be oil spills off the coast of Muriwai and Kauri felling in the Waitakere’s. The ad hoc CBD planning style will spill out into all the major towns around Auckland, as will predictable results of leaky and remedial building work, soho hole for years, shonky apartments amid 2 million dollar unaffordable development apartments and 5 lanes of ‘Thailand’ style traffic throughout.

      BUT importantly I do feel that people MUST vote for the left councillors or everything will be lost in Auckland. The councillors still have a small amount of control to stop the carnage.

  3. Mike in Auckland says:

    Here in Auckland we have a lot of misinformation happening, and even such groups as Generation Zero have fallen for similar arguments the developer lobby presented during the PAUP hearings, promoting a highly reduced rules framework for new developments.

    I question how much they themselves understand of the complex rules and policy statement that the Unitary Plan will contain, as their presentations at the hearings did at times look and sound rather amateurish, and overly idealistic.

    As we are with local body politics again, important matters are decided and then planned for, and we have just seen how that works, not necessarily all that “democratic”.

    There was much discussion about “develop-ability” and “feasibility” studies done – based on the proposed planning framework, and this was what was last the deciding factor for the “independent” Panel hearing submissions (mostly from business and large organisations and government agencies, plus Council) making recommendations to Auckland Council, which were mostly adopted.

    But by voting to keep minimum sizes for dwellings, the Governing Body of Auckland Council has actually reduced the potential for develop-able developments again.

    The Panel recommended their sets of rules and design standards, which were very liberal and had NO minimum dwelling requirements. Hence they could come up with a “study” that said over 400,000 dwellings were now possible under their “recommended plan”.

    The “Decision Version” of the Plan is though different again, being a mixture of what Council had suggested at the end of hearings, and what the Panel had recommended on 22 July.

    Look at this part of the recommendations by the Panel:

    Look at the ‘Memo’ from 08 July from K. Balderston to the Panel, and the explanations and projections from page 4 in the PDF onwards. Look under ‘B. Summary Results’ and then see pages 2, 3, 4 and so forth, at the tables and graphs.

    The Council recommended plan would (under June/July 2016 conditions) allow for over 420,000 dwellings to be feasibly developed, with NO minimum dwelling reqirements.

    Given the Council’s vote, this must be reduced again, as minimum sizes for dwellings means less liberal rules and thus less develop-able feasible dwellings, even though the more liberal rezoning of some areas of Auckland may allow some more dwellings than the Auckland Council’s version with modified rules and no rezoning, which allowed for barely 300,000 new dwellings.

    So the actual figure for develop-able dwellings is now somewhere between 300,000 and 420,000, well it must be at the lower end in that range.

    This is all stuff our local body and mayoral candidates do not talk about, they also do not even understand in detail what the new Plan contains, and how the end result may not deliver what they perhaps promise Aucklanders. Even those computer projections are to some degree just speculative, as the variables and conditions worked on may not quite match the reality and human and with that developer’s behaviour.

    And as there is now NO requirement to provide affordable homes, the Plan is likely to become a failure same as the Special Housing Areas have become.

    • Mike in Auckland says:

      Phil Goff has apparently not got it into his brain cells yet, that is unless he is intentionally misleading Parliament and the public, but today he repeated the “efforts” by the Council to now have passed a plan that will enable over 420,000 new “homes” or dwellings.
      That was what he went on about in Parliament today, during the debate. He made some valid other points though, challenging the government.

      But it is BS that 420,000 dwellings will be enabled under the now voted for version of the PAUP, as the Governing Body voted against the overly liberal rules the government appointed, supposedly “independent” hearing panel recommended for the Unitary Plan. Going back to two dwellings per section – instead of four (without needing consent), and also sticking to minimum sizes for dwellings, the 420,000 is again just a fancy figure that will not be realised under no means now, we may talk of about 300,000, if developers will use all zoned land and opportunities to develop and build additional housing.

      But as we have local body elections come up, prepare for more truth twisting, misleading comments and blatant lies, from many candidates.

  4. Afewknowthetruth says:

    City, district and regional councils are amongst the most corrupt, inefficient and ineffective institutions in NZ.

    Constantly breaching NZ Statutes, they are the driving force behind the destruction of communities, the driving force behind the destruction of the environment and the driving force behind the destruction of the future -akin to a cancer that progressively consumes its host.